Because she covers Hank Williams ("Cold Cold Heart") and songs made famous by Nina Simone ("Turn Me On") and Hoagy Carmichael ("The Nearness of You"), because her debut comes courtesy of revered jazz label Blue Note, because Come Away With Me was produced by Arif Mardin (who's worked on albums by Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, the Rolling Stones and dozens of others), it's difficult to get a firm grip on Norah Jones, impossible to slap a tag on her so she can be filed away and ignored. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Dallas (she graduated from Arts Magnet) and settled in New York again, Jones has a slippery style that's informed by where she grew up, where she studied and where she lives now, though not dominated by any of those locations. Or any person, or any particular music, for that matter; the only stamp on this album comes solely from her heart and soul. Come Away With Me is spectacularly steady, especially for a debut album by a 22-year-old singer-songwriter-pianist, going its own way without a map or even a road, yet never veering off its chosen path. She meets Nick Drake and Lucinda Williams and Dinah Washington, among others, along the way, never breaking stride, never stopping long enough to get stuck in one place.
The disc envelops a full record store of categories and potential pigeonholes, from country ("Lonestar," which has more of a back-porch swing than her supper-club rendering of "Cold Cold Heart") to cabaret ("I've Got to See You Again," propped up by Jenny Scheinman's wandering-gypsy violin) to folk (the Joni Mitchell nods "Don't Know Why" and "Seven Years") to piano-bar blues ("The Nearness of You") and simmering soul (the sultry "Turn Me On"), but Jones alights on each with the subtle touch of a skilled actor, almost imperceptibly toying with her line readings. While she's more of a jazz singer than, say, Neil Diamond (actually, she's much, much more), Blue Note is only a label here, not a pine box to bury her in. Jones and her band--bassist Lee Alexander, guitarists Jesse Harris and Adam Levy and drummers Dan Rieser and Brian Blade, along with Jones on piano--shift the music and mood of the disc seamlessly, tinkering with phrasing, cutting up melodies, nibbling at the edges instead of making wholesale changes when they go from here to there. Instead of coming off as a mix tape of influences, Come Away With Me is instead a 14-song examination of Jones' musical personality, a long look at how each style and all of her substance come together to floor you with the softest punch ever thrown. It's not all over the place; it's all from one place. The difference is slight but distinct, and that's the trick.
Actually, there aren't many tricks to be found on Come Away With Me; the disc is almost stripped bare of ornament, filleting away all the fat until it's left with only Jones' Sunday-morning voice and singing-to-myself sincerity. Jones sings in a seductive murmur, a smoky hush that falls all over each song. When she whispers, "Come away with me and we'll kiss on a mountaintop/Come away with me/And I'll never stop loving you," a bag is packed before she finishes the song. When she moans, on "Shoot the Moon," "Will you think of times you've told me/That you knew the reason why we had to each be lonely," she's so sad and strong, it's more genuine than any song deserves to be. And when she sings, on "Seven Years," "Spinning, laughing, dancing to her favorite song/A little girl with nothing wrong is all alone," it kind of kisses your heart.
Though she only wrote or co-wrote three of the songs on the album (bandmates Alexander and Harris handle most of the writing chores on Come Away With Me), Jones' singular voice owns all of them, even familiar tunes such as Williams' "Cold Cold Heart," which has been covered and re-covered so often, you'd think Hank wrote it in an upholstery shop. Still, as skilled as she is at interpreting others' material, it's obvious from the songs she wrote for this record--"Nightingale," "The Long Day is Over" and the title track--Come Away With Me is merely sticking a big toe into the depths of her talent. "Come away with me in the night/Come away with me/And I will write you a song," she sings. Hard to pass up that offer.